The state and the Missouri School Counselor Association have chosen three people to serve as Missouri School Counselor of the Year. Laura Buchheit, from Perryville Primary Center; Maria Stokes, of Blair Oaks Middle School in Wardsville; and Rachel Reeves-Hagelin, of Belton High School.

Stokes has been a school counselor for nine years.

“For some families, I have been the school counselor now for three of their kids in a row, and it’s it is such a blessing. That has never worn off,” she said. “Meeting a kid at 10 or 11, and then because I’ve been here long enough to see some of them graduate high school, is amazing. And just seeing the people that they become because you’re such a different person at 10 than you are at 18.”

She recalls one of her greatest memories working with a struggling student.

“One that is going to standout when I’m sitting in a retirement home someday, is one of my first and hardest students that I worked with, an absolutely stunning young lady who just was convinced she was worthless. It was very hard in early- and mid-middle school for her to even picture that she would be alive at 18,” said Stokes. “She could not emotionally accept that there was a future for her.”

According to Stokes, the student was spending hours on Instagram on Tik Tok. She had about 5,000 followers on Instagram.

“But at the same time, thought that she was completely worthless,” Stokes said.

Stokes made a deal with that student – when the student graduates and the day she turned 18, the student was to bring Stokes a sprinkled donut.

On that student’s 18th birthday, she did not forget the promise she had made with her school counselor. She handed Stokes that sprinkled donut.

How did that moment make Stokes feel?

“I loved on this kid. I supported this kid. I made her see her worth. I made her mad,” said Stokes. “When I called her parents and said, ‘Start monitoring her phone, start taking her phone away at eight o’clock.’ She broke down. She thought she wasn’t going to make it if she wasn’t using that, for her what was an addiction at that time. So, it was hard, but it’s really just relief, and joy, and gratitude that she made it. It has very little to do with me. She just as easily could have taken what I said and not chosen to do the work.”

Some Missouri schools are cracking down on the use of cell phones and electronic devices during school hours. Blair Oaks Middle and Elementary Schools do not allow students to be on these devices during school. Stokes said applying this rule has paid off.

“And that first year we did that (in middle school), our referrals for anxiety went down by like 70%,” said Stokes. “Because they were not spending all of their time and their brain’s attention bumping back and forth between what my history teacher is saying and what I just saw on Snapchat, and back and forth, and back and forth. These kids, especially at the middle school level and below, do not have the prefrontal cortex development to create healthy boundaries.”

Stokes said she’s shocked at the level of chatter in the lunchroom these days.

“A cool trend that started with the eighth grade, and they’ve been doing it all year, they started to bring decks of cards and chess sets. They went through a whole phase last year of playing cards at lunch where they were all staring at a three by five rectangle prior to that – in middle school,” she exclaimed.

Stokes strongly encourages parents to know all the passwords for their children’s apps. She also wants them to persuade their kids to spend less time on electronic devices and more time on other activities.

As for what she thinks Missouri’s school counselors need, she has this message for parents:

“We need you to engage with your teachers,” said Stokes. “We need you to engage with your kids. We need you to allow yourself to make your kids mad by taking their devices away, and forcing them make healthy choices. We need you to be the parents that are reminding them, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’ve gotten off the couch this Saturday and it’s 3 p.m. Why don’t we go for a walk?’ We need you to re-engage because we here at school cannot be your replacement. We are here to support you, parents. But the ultimate job is yours. You are the bosses of your kids and we are just their support. We need to believe in the teachers when the teachers reach out and say, ‘Hey, your kiddo didn’t do their best on this assignment. Maybe they can try again.’ Defend your teachers and support them.”

Missouri will choose one of the School Counselors of the Year to potentially be considered for the National School Counselor of the Year.

Copyright © 2023